Today, I didn’t expect to actually have a WoW post to write, as I’m just holding out for the Shadowlands launch next week. But a story popped up on Wowhead that caught my eyes – 13 year Blizzard employee and WoW team member Chris Kaleiki has left the company and made a video discussing the reasons why with some reflection. Here is that video:
So with that there now, I feel like it is worth talking about this content because I think it drives at what has been a debate and discussion among the community, really since Classic was announced, but for a longer period of time.
I’d encourage you to watch the whole video, but I wanted to recap my key takeaways from it and discuss the big revelation from the whole thing.
Class Design Team is Small: We as a community have always joked that the team at Blizzard must surely have a designer per class or something similar. Nope! Chris recounts how, when joining the team in 2007, he and one other developer worked on class design for Wrath of the Lich King, for a team size of 2. A lot of people are really honing in on this point negatively, but I think, logically, a smaller design team is better – you can have a clearer, more coherent vision without as much gridlock and argument over design elements. Likewise, it allows you to better coordinate role design – making sure tanks and healers have parity with each other and the like. Sure, it doesn’t always work out as ideally as I’ve described – but theoretically, I think people like this point because it sounds worse than it is. Hearing him describe it certainly made it sound really good – there’s a lot of emphasis on cohesion and thinking about the big picture of how specs and classes play in each setting.
Chris was also the main monk designer for their implementation in Mists of Pandaria, and describes Mistweaver as his ideal healer. As someone who really enjoyed Mistweaver in MoP, that is a fun tidbit.
Plays and Leads a PvP Guild: I thought I was going to have more than two points for this, but here’s the second one – like a ton of Blizzard employees, he was and still is a WoW player. Someone who led a PvP guild working on design is probably a good thing, and it seems to shape his impressions of the vision of the game.
So having said that…let’s discuss the meaty center of this video
WoW, Vision, and Lack Thereof
The biggest issue Chris discusses in the video is his reason for departing Blizzard after so long. He views the game through the lens of Classic vs Modern and establishes it thusly – Classic has a clear design vision with solid pillars that shine through all aspects of the game. The world is a character, the players and their stories are the content, and the game exists to facilitate this. By contrast, he laments that Modern WoW, insofar as it has a vision, is muddled and unclear, even to the developers. Some developers genuinely believe the vision remains the same and has not changed, others believe that the modern game is a conscious choice of new vision and has shifted purposefully towards it, and others still believe as Chris does – that the game is muddled, unclear, and doesn’t purposefully fit itself to a vision so much as sort of landing there from changes made for player interest. A great way of characterizing it that he set out is that the modern team focuses on tasks more than an overarching goal – rather than building a sailboat as means to explore, the team is building a hull, sails, etc.
Chris is a classic MMO sort of player, and notes that his interest is in virtual worlds and what drew him to WoW is strong core MMO systems – guilds, players being able to affect the world around them and the social cohesion and intrinsic rewards that carries. In particular, he calls out that Classic required guilds for much of the endgame content, basically needing a group of players to tackle the challenges posed, and that the social component of the game created the success that WoW experienced by making players dependent on each other to be successful. He noted (rightly) that this is a point of friction with the playerbase, in that many players pushed for solo play, which he notes is fine and fair enough, but that as the game has drifted in this direction more and more, the character of the game has changed.
Likewise, he notes that the story of WoW was once a byproduct of player activity, and that players defined the journey of the game in their own individual spheres of influence, rather than the top-down storytelling of today. Again, he remains positive that the current storytelling focus isn’t “bad” or wrong, just that it changes the character of the game. In the older eras of the game, you had more room as a player to create moments that people would remember, and he specifically cites how his PvP guild would troll to prevent players from turning in the Onyxia head for the buff, which would create gameplay friction among players and a story for later.
Lastly on the game, he talks about rewards, and how the focus has shifted, perhaps too much, towards extrinsic rewards and progression systems over sound, fundamental gameplay focused on the pillars of the game. He notes the team has shifted focus too much towards engagement over those core features of an MMO, and it is a big part of the game’s identity crisis.
He closes by saying that he loves Blizzard, the company, while it has grown and feels fundamentally different as a result, is largely challenged by scale – no longer being the scrappy entity it once was and instead requiring meeting the challenge of its own size. Overall, however, he notes that the company is fine, WoW will persevere – but that while he believes WoW is still the king of virtual worlds, he no longer believes it will stay that way forever and a part of his goal professionally is to find the next big virtual world to lend his expertise to.
“The real world sucks in a lot of ways…” – Chris Kaleiki, 2020
To me, this video was a genuine surprise, but a pleasant one of sorts. I’ve met Chris before at Blizzcon (in passing) and when he’s presented at Blizzcon or discussed the game publicly, I’ve generally found him to echo a lot of what I feel about the game. Obviously, leaving your job of 13 years is tough, and I find his reasoning sound and am sure that decision was impossibly difficult to come to, given how much passion he clearly has for it.
His revelations of the state of the WoW team do make a lot of sense, and contextualize something we’ve all been discussing in the blogosphere for months now, particularly as regards Shadowlands – the game does seem to be more of a narrative RPG focused on systems and rewards over meaningful social engagement. To speak to my own experiences, I think the points about social cohesion and interdependence are well made and received – server community no longer really exists as a thing and players often can evade their reputations, while outstanding players no longer really get promoted as members of a community. I remember in Wrath of the Lich King, when I would often PUG bosses or whole raids prior to having a raiding guild home, and I got a pretty good reputation which led to whispers and invites. I remember building up my social capital with my guild at the time and getting to be one of the few non-officers in our 10-player officer raids. That social capital later made me the de facto guild leader when the original one left for Rift (remember Rift?) and then raid leader when I worked to split the responsibilities with a player from another group of real life friends, keeping the peace and improving the guild’s cohesion.
Modern WoW doesn’t really have that, but it still sort of does. Like, for me as a Heroic raider, I do mostly need a guild to make serious progression – if I ever left my current guild, it might likely signal the end of my time in the game (a topic which I’ve discussed before), and while yes, I know PUGs exist and a ton of players progress Heroic through them, it has never been my style. On the other hand, I am one of those players who enjoys and is grateful for the solo progression and systems available to me so that when my social batteries are drained, I can still just play and enjoy the game. What I took away from the video is that Blizzard has sort of internalized their core design pillars, but hasn’t really adapted them and created a fresh outlook on the game, which is a dissonant sort of idea – the game is dictating the vision to design rather than the other way around. The way it sounds to me is that the game could have a clear vision and have arrived at the same point in a better, more structured way, designed to enthrall players like the original so clearly did. Instead, the game has sort of sleepwalked into its current position and design and that lack of forethought and meaningful choice towards that path has made its arrival there lacking.
Ultimately, like a lot of long-term creative projects, it has suffered from a lack of a meaningful, focused refresh – the original design was strong and had a clear focus and identity, but the team has not appeared to recalibrate on that identity and instead has let it sort of drift onwards – which is something many of us have intuitively felt from the outside, but it is nice to see that confirmed internally as well. The way he paints the contrasting ideas for the game is interesting to me too – the team itself seems to have different ideas about what World of Warcraft is in 2020, but most people are too locked into a task or designing and implementing a sliver of that top-to-bottom product to really be able to stop and look at the larger picture. I think that is something that does tend to shine through externally as well – many aspects of the last several expansions have been great in isolation, but often struggle with the big picture. In many ways, it sort of answers for me why things like Azerite have been so divisive – there was probably a designer who worked on traits and that design, and then the rewards team has to tie it in to different modes of play so that it works, but the vision of traits gets unclear when mapped to raid gear and tiered rewards, the leveling mechanic breaks down when there are so many ways to progress and the game has to be designed to put a soft cap on progress on a weekly level, and thus the whole thing feels disconnected and janky.
Carrying forward into Shadowlands, what I find fascinating is that the game has a lot of elements like this despite being lighter on borrowed power when compared to Battle for Azeroth or especially Legion. Legion’s BP systems had a tight integration with one another for the most part – the Class Hall had a strong lore reason to develop, which made the gameplay systems coherent with the world content and story, which made Artifacts feel significant both in lore as well as their massive shadow over gameplay, and all of that fed forward into Legionfall and how things worked from patch 7.2 onward. Legendaries were sort of an odd-man out scenario, but everything else felt pretty cohesive. BfA lacked a lot of that – Azerite was an important lore element to the main story, but the zone stories and continent stories lacked a lot of tie in to it, so it always sort of felt like Azerite was a thing that was bolted on and didn’t really fit. With Shadowlands, in some ways, I feel like the Covenant system makes sense (soulbinding to a partner, building power to help right the path of the realms of Death, everyone working together towards a shared purpose yet one that each realm serves in its own unique way) but in other ways, it remains disconnected (how does a race of angelic creatures have a mastery of shadowy or demonic magic?, why are these Covenants both intrinsic to the defense of the Shadowlands and yet also wary and untrusting of each other to the point that I cannot join a new one without being questioned?). There’s this jarring line of story and gameplay, and I think when I put it like this, what I really enjoyed about Legion (despite its glaring BP problems in retrospect) is that it all felt like a whole thing that was cooked up and conceived by a shared team with a shared vision, while BfA and now Shadowlands feels the opposite – disconnected, disjointed elements of design and development mashed together in a way that targets making me want to play while making that play feel intrinsically less rewarding.
And the reward emphasis in this video is the last thing I want to analyze. As someone who enjoys power creep and climbing the item level ladder, I don’t mind extrinsic rewards. However, I do think Chris’ broader point is absolutely a key element to why the current game has a muddled vision. The original game through a lot of expansions has extrinsic rewards that are focal to the game – getting gear, climbing item level, feeling more powerful – all of those are things that feel good and are core to the design of WoW, in my opinion. In modern WoW, however, loot is just one piece of an overall reward ecosystem – you need to build borrowed power, push a myriad of systems through a progression chain, and then also get loot. Of these, only loot actually matters long term – as everything else is diminished in value by the time the next expansion rolls on. We’ve talked this point to death in the past, and I am feeling vindicated to see that the team (well, certain members/past members of it) also see that.
Overall? I’m equally optimistic and gloomy about the future of the game after this video. Why?
Optimistically, it tells me that there are people who identify with the players in the audience and are struggling to put the game onto a righted path with a clear forward vision, one which, while different from launch in several ways, is codified and detailed as a map to success. While Chris is speaking in the video only for himself, the ways in which he describes things makes it clear that there are people who remain on-board in the same boat, pushing the team to recognize a shared vision.
Pessimistically, I worry that a 13-year veteran of the game leaving while accurately calling out many points of failure in the game and noting that WoW will one day lose its virtual world crown while also expressing profound desire to see it better means that people fighting to bring the team to a shared vision and a unified forward path are losing that fight. Ultimately, game development is done by people as a job – and while I certainly believe that the developers I’ve seen at Blizzard have a passion for the art of gaming and what it can be, it is ultimately a job. At Activision-Blizzard in 2020, it is a corporate job – one ruled by accountants, shareholders, and a need to return value to them due to fiduciary responsibility, and a job that I am sure wears thin for many over time.
Either way, I am fascinated to see what comes next, because I do think that we are on the precipice of a moment of reckoning for the WoW team (that is a very fluffy combination of words and I am leaving it and this self-note in the post), where I think the team can take a path forward that is closer to a unified vision, or continue down their current path. And, outside of Blizzard, who knows what virtual world is going to surface to kick WoW off the throne?
For that reason, I will be watching where Mr. Kaleiki goes with some interest.